The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Posts tagged with: Software
For years office workers, college students, and others relied on saving their electronic documents to 5.25” floppy disks and then to 3.5” diskettes. These documents were typically small word-processing or datasheets, as a floppy would only hold about 160 kb to 1.2 mb of data, and the PC home user was not creating and storing the gigabytes of audio, video and image files that are commonplace today. The 5.25” became obsolete in the early 1990s, but as you might guess, they still show up to this day at the Archives. There are about 400 of them in our collections, which also include the 3.5” diskettes, ZIP disks, CDs, DVDs, external drives, and USB flash drives.
For a while we were able to access the 5.25” floppies on an older PC running Windows 2000 not connected to the network. That machine was affectionately known as “Granny” due to its lack of speed and was later replaced by another machine running Windows XP. Accessing floppies was hit or miss with that operating system because XP does not support all 5.25” formats. There would be “disk not formatted” errors even though we were sure there was data on the disk.
We recently acquired some hardware and software called the FC5025 that now allows us to access most of those files in our current Windows 7 environment. Nevertheless, there are some disks that are just inaccessible and can no longer be recovered due to previous storage conditions, handling, or other issues.
In addition to being able to access these older files, we are able to do this on the secure Smithsonian network. This saves us time with our processing workflow by not having to save files to an external drive and then copying to our network server for preservation work.
The 5.25” drive with a floppy controller is attached to the PC using a USB plug. The user interface software runs to access the contents on the disk. If it is successful, there is the option to save the files directly or to create a disk image of the floppy. We have opted to do the disk image and then extract the files since this method retains the original file date. The software also indicates if it cannot recover the files.
The work does not end there though, as we need to scan for viruses and determine what the file formats are and how the files can be accessed and preserved. We have encountered WordStar and older WordPerfect files. As time allows we can revisit collections that contain 5.25” floppies that we could not access in the recent past.
The Death of the Floppy, Engines of Our Ingenuity, University of Houston
Floppy Disks are Dead, Long Live Floppy Disks, The Library of Congress
Think the Floppy Disk is Dead? Think Again!, Digital Trends
Throughout the years, we have written about our digitized and born-digital materials that include images, video, architectural drawings or CAD, and websites. We have not touched upon the preservation of word-processing documents very much, though. Most do not find them as exciting as an image of a Smithsonian event, a drawing of the plans for a museum, or an animal video from the National Zoological Park. So, they can get overlooked as something that needs digital preservation. However, consider all the typing we do on a computer either at work or at home. Some of those digital documents do have long-term value.
The advent of computer word processing caused a revolution in the business world. No longer did one have to use Liquid Paper or correction tape to fix mistakes made while using a typewriter (electric or manual).
Word-processing software that we think of today dates back to the 1970s. Prior to that, word processing was considered more of a business process to make work more efficient through procedures and machines.
The Archives has documents from across the Institution in various versions of Wordstar, XyWrite, WordPerfect, and Microsoft Word for both PC and Mac. These files include press releases, memos, and photo captions. Some of these files are 30 years-old and the software that originally created them no longer exists.
In some ways these files are easier to preserve or convert to another format because they are not as complex as an image file or a website. If you have an older file and cannot read it, here are three ways your document possibly can be accessed. Make sure to use a copy of the file before proceeding.
- Try using viewer software that can read older word-processing files. Some of these programs can even tell you the version of the software program, e.g. MS Word 8 vs MS Word 14. Keep in mind the font and display may be different from the original. Google search “file viewing software” for possible options.
- Try opening it as text file in a text editor. In some cases you also can figure out if the file is WordPerfect, Microsoft Word, or something else. See image examples. Older WordPerfect files have WPC at the beginning of the file. Microsoft Word files have Word and version information at the bottom of the file. Additional coding (like font and printer information) also might appear in the text file view. When dealing with decades-old documents, a file with .doc extension might just mean it is a document and not a MS Word file. Other “extensions” we have seen in the Archives are .let for letter and .mem for memo with files from the 1980s.
- Try opening it with current word-processing software even if it is a different program. Keep in mind that different software can render files in different ways.
If you are working on something very important, you should also consider saving the file in PDF or PDF/A (the A stands for archival). This is good step especially when you want to preserve the look and feel (layout, fonts, etc.) of the document and not rely on proprietary software. These are the best practices we follow at the Archives.
PDF/A files are harder to create, though, due to certain requirements such as no encryption, no audio or video content, and fonts that must be embedded within document. Some proprietary fonts are unable to be embedded. Another option is to migrate the document by saving it in a newer version of the software, if available.
Happy digital preservation in 2016!
A Peek into an Electronic Records Archivist’s Toolbox, The Bigger Picture Blog, Smithsonian Institution Archives